As with other holidays, Edward Stratemeyer wrote a couple short stories for Independence Day for the Newark Sunday Call. The first of these was “A Lucky Explosion: An Independence Day Story for Young People” (3 July 1892).
The story was reprinted in an abridged form in Young Sports of America as by “Ed Ward” (13 July 1895). This shorter version was printed again as “The Fowler Boys’ Fourth, and What Came of It” in his own story paper, Bright Days (July 1895).
A boy is not quite satisfied with the planned festivities for July 4 and longed for something more exciting. As is often the case, he got more than he bargained for.
The version below is the fuller version from the newspaper. We included both this and the Bright Days version in our Holiday Stories For Boys (volume 1) so that readers could make their own comparisons. The Sunday Call version has some Newark-specific references that were dropped for the later abridged versions for a national audience.
A Lucky Explosion.
An Independence Day Story for Young People.
By Edward Stratemeyer
It is not often that the explosion of a cannon proves a lucky occurrence, but in the present instance such was a fact.
The Fowler Boys who lived up in the old portion of Roseville had decided to have a celebration. Nothing of a public nature was going on, and it was entirely out of the question to allow the Fourth of July to pass without a demonstration of some sort.
The Fowler Boys came to this conclusion as they sat out on the big rocks that rested on the other side of the roadway, facing the rather dilapidated cottage in which they lived.
There were three of the boys, Sam, Jerry, and Bob, and they were bright, lively fellows, every one of them.
“Yes, there is no use talking,” said Sam, “we must do something for the sake of our reputation, if nothing else. Why, grandpop says they used to have great times when he was a boy—picnicking and parading and so on.”
“We can’t go on a picnic very well,” replied Jerry. “Three of us wouldn’t make much of a crowd.”
“I say we get some powder and fire off the old canon,” suggested Bob. “It hasn’t been fired off in some years.”
Sam shook his head. He was the oldest of the boys and a cautious chap.
“It wouldn’t be safe,” he said.
“The canon is all rust and might fly to pieces.”
“We can clean it up and try a light load then,” put in Jerry, who liked Bob’s idea.
“It would have to be a very light load,” countered the older brother. “No, boys, let’s leave the old thing alone and celebrate in some other way.”
“There isn’t any other way as I can see,” mumbled Bob. “I’ve saved up 80 cents to spend on the Fourth and——”
“It’s burning a hole in your pocket, eh, Bob?”
And Sam gave a good-natured guffaw, which, however, did not suit either Bob or Jerry, and walked off.
Sam was eighteen years old, while they were only twelve and fourteen. Consequently Sam thought it his duty to look after the other two, something which the two younger boys resented.
“Old enough to look after ourselves,” grumbled Jerry, the youngest of all. “Sam’s getting too old for fun.”
“He he he,” replied Bob. “I go in for making the most of the Fourth; it don’t come but once a year.”
“And that year mother was so sick we didn’t dare to make a bit of noise. This is our chance.”
Bob looked around cautiously to see if anyone was near.
“Why, Jerry, suppose we buy some powder down in Newark and not tell Sam or anybody about it,” he whispered.
Jerry’s eyes opened and he nodded.
“We can get the old cannon out of the barn and put out in the field and hide it out there and he won’t know a thing until she goes off. Won’t it be an incredible joke?”
“You’re right, it will.”
“Then you agree?”
“Of course. You are going down to Newark to-night, are you not?”
“Yes. Sam said he would take me there.”
“Then you can buy the powder,” concluded Jerry. “He is going to get a new pair of boots and there is a hardware store next to the shoe store. While he is trying on the boots you can slip out and get the powder.”
The boys thought their plan an excellent one and they determined to carry it out to the letter.
The Fowler boys were poor. Their father had been dead some ten or twelve years—ever since Bob had been a tiny baby. They lived on a twenty-acre farm, … land and the milk and butter from eight cows to support them. It was sometimes a good deal of work just to get along. But not a one of them was afraid to work and Mrs. Fowler considered herself fortunate to have such a willing trio to assist her.
She was a rather weak woman who had never been really strong, and her share of the farm labors was sometimes more than she could stand. Each one of the boys wished he could do something to make her rich, so she would not have to work at all, but though they tried their best, thus far they had not been able to accomplish their desire.
“If I could only find a pocketbook with about $10,000 in it,” Bob had thought more than once, “then mother wouldn’t have to wash milk pans anymore, and we wouldn’t have to sell all the best of the fruit every year. Other fellows are lucky, why can’t I be so just once? I never so much as found a cent in my whole life.”
Besides, the Fowler family, Grandfather Ridd lived in the old cottage. He was Mrs. Fowler’s father, a man past seventy, and whose mind was failing rapidly.
Grandfather had been a soldier in two wars and he was patriotic to the core. He loved to talk of the battles through which he had gone—Bull Run and all the rest—and it was these stories which had excited Bob to celebrate the Fourth of July.
“If I can’t be a soldier I want to show folks that I appreciate what the soldiers have done,” he said to one of his outside chums. “Sam don’t believe in celebrating, but Jerry and I do, and we’re going to have the biggest time in Roseville.”
“What are you going to do?” asked the other boy.
“Never mind. Just you come up in front of our house to-morrow morning about 6 o’clock and you’ll see. But don’t tell Sam.”
And the other boy promised to be on hand and bring several others with him.
When Bob entered the cottage that evening he found Grandfather Ridd telling Jerry of the Fourth of Julys he had spent in the army. He spoke in a hesitant and trembling voice but Bob became an eager listener.
“Ye-es, boys, ’63 was a hard one for me,” he was saying. “We had just ended the great Seven Days battle thet I hev told you about, under General McClellan, and we had retreated to a place called Harrison’s Bar, on the James river. In the fight I had lost this air right arm o’ mine, and I was in the hospital, not carin’ much whether Fourth o’ July kept or not.”
“It must have been hard, father,” put in Mrs. Fowler, kindly.
“It was, Jane, but I didn’t grumble, cause why? Cause I hed lost it fer Uncle Sam and the hull country.”
“You ought to have had a pension for that arm, grandpop,” observed Sam who was washing up, preparatory to taking his trip down to Newark.
“I suppose so, boy; I suppose so,” mumbled Grandfather Ridd.
“Didn’t you ever try for one?” asked Jerry with sudden interest, for the pension idea was a new one to him.
But the old man did not answer the question. He was so busy thinking of the battle through which he had passed that he had not heard of it.
But other Fourths were brighter,” he muttered. “Ye-es, they were brighter, and I hollered for Uncle Sam just as loud as the rest, ye-es boys, and’ I want you to holler for him too, cause why? Cause this here is the best country on the face of nature’s realm, that’s why.”
And then old Grandfather Ridd sank back in his old armchair and presently was sound asleep.
“He did try for a pension,” said Mrs. Fowler to Jerry when the boy repeated his question.
“And why didn’t he get it?” cried bob; “I’m sure grandpop deserves it as much as any old soldier.”
“True, Robert,” replied the mother with a faint sigh, “but there are certain formalities to be gone through with before the Government will grant a pension.”
“What kind of formalities, mother?”
“I cannot explain all of them to you, my boy, but your grandfather should have had certain papers or addresses, which he cannot furnish.”
“It’s a shame to keep him out of the money just on that account.”
“So it is; especially as he once had the papers.”
“He did have the papers?” asked Bob, with wide open eyes.
“What has become of them?”
“I do not know. Your grandfather hid them away in a great hurry and that is the last that has been seen of them.”
“Surely he knew where they are?”
“No. You know his mind is affected and he cannot remember.”
“But didn’t you question him closely, mother?”
“I did but it worries him into a fever. His last sickness was caused by his trying to remember where he had placed the papers. I must caution you not to say more about it to him.”
“Do you suppose the papers are here in the house?”
“I did think so once; but I have hunted from garret to cellar a hundred times without success.”
“You can’t duplicate the papers, I suppose?”
“No. I believe they were witnesses’ sureties, and we do not know where the witnesses reside.”
“I think I understand. It’s a jolly shame. I am going to spend a good part of my spare time lookin’ for those papers hereafter.”
“You can, Bob. But don’t spend time that ought to be put in working.”
“I will not, mother.”
A little while later Sam and Bob started off on their trip to Newark. The younger boy’s mind was filled with what he had said to his parent, and he told Sam how he was going to find those papers, even if it took a month of Sundays to do it.
“Humph,” said Sam. “If you do I’m afraid you’ll be like the miller who, in lookin’ for the pot of gold he had dreamed was buried under his mill, undermined the building, and let the whole thing go to splash.”
“I shan’t undermine the house,” replied Bob, and then he was silent, satisfied that it was no use talking to Sam; he never chimed in like Jerry did.
“What are you going to do with your money?” asked Sam, as they walked down Broad street.
“I am going to buy a new straw hat for one thing,” replied Bob, evasively. And then to change the subject he cried, “Oh, look at the nice ones in that shop for twenty-nine cents!”
“They are nice. I was going to get one, too. Come, we will go in.”
So in the boys went, and presently emerged, each with a new hat. Then Sam led the way to the shoe store.
“Ain’t you going in?” he asked, as he notice Bob hang back.
“No. I want to stand outside and watch what is going on.”
“Better come in and see what kind of boots I get.”
“No; I don’t want to go in the store.”
So Sam was compelled to enter alone. He had hardly done so when Bob ran off, eager to get the gunpowder he desired.
The hardware store was close at hand, and, trembling for fear Sam might see him, he sneaked in. The place was full of customers, and he had to wait for a long while before he was asked what was desired.
“Fifty cents’ worth of powder, please,” he replied.
Bob hesitated. He did not know one kind of powder from another.
“I want it for a cannon,” he said. A cannon about that long,” and he held out his hands.
Without another word the clerk hurried to fill the order. It took but a minute, but to Bob it seemed an hour. Suppose Sam already had the boots and was waiting outside?
At last he had the package in his hand, and the fifty cents was passed over. It was equal shares of his own money and Jerry’s. He almost ran out, stuffing the powder in the pocket of his jacket as he did so.
But Sam was not yet suited, and did not appear for fully ten minutes.
“Had a fearful time getting a fit,” he grumbled, as he came out with the boots under his arm. “The clerk says I take an awful big boot for a boy. Get tired of waiting?”
“A little,” replied Bob. “Where you going now?”
“Just a ways down the street and then home.”
Sam took Bob down to the clothing ships and made him wait until the big brother had priced several suits. All the time he was waiting Bob was fearful of his powder. There was a crowd around, most of the men were smoking, and if a spark got at that package Bob knew very well what the result would be.
At last they started for home, Sam pointed to several windows filled with fireworks, but made no offer to buy any of the stuff.
“It just makes a bright light or a loud report, and that is all there is to it,” he said. “I have better use for my money.”
“But I like a racket on the Fourth,” said Bob.
“I don’t. It makes my head ache and always brings on an everlasting heavy shower that no one is looking for.”
To this Bob made no reply. He wondered what Sam would say on the following morning, when Jerry and he fired off the old cannon. He was sure the report would be a tremendous one.
When the two boys arrived home, and Sam had called his mother to look at the purchase, Jerry slid up to Bob.
“Did you get it?” he asked, almost breathlessly.
“Yes. Come down tot the barn and we’ll hide it until tomorrow.”
Once in the barn the powder was placed in a safe place in the loft and then both boys went down to inspect the old cannon which Jerry had been trying hard to clean.
It was an old-fashioned iron affair, this cannon, and had done duty on the village green years and years ago. How it had ever found its way to the Fowler’s barn was a mystery. But there it stood, one of its wheels gone and covered with rust both inside and out.
“The oil didn’t have much effect on it,” said Jerry. “I worked on it like a beaver from the time you went away and it don’t show it a bit. Blame me if I ain’t getting afraid of the thing.”
“Pooh! what is there to be afraid of?” exclaimed Bob. “We won’t load it up to the muzzle.”
“But it’s so old—”
“I will fire it off, Jerry. All you need to do is help load, for I don’t know anything about that part of the business and you do.”
“It won’t do for either of us to get hurt.”
“No fear of that.”
Still, as they walked back to the house, Jerry felt shaky, and half wished he hadn’t invested twenty-five cents in powder. Bob, too, was fearful about the outcome of the celebration, though he would not admit it even to himself.
Mrs. Fowler thought the boys acted rather strange throughout the evening. She spoke to Sam about it and the older brother said he guessed Bob and Jerry were put out because they couldn’t have a howling time the next day.
“Bob might have got some firecrackers down town,” suggested Mrs. Fowler, who did not wish to see any one deprived of innocent enjoyment.
‘Guess he didn’t want any firecrackers,” said Sam. “He and Jerry wanted to fire off the old cannon that’s in the barn, and I told them it was all foolishness.”
“I am glad you did.” said Mrs. Fowler. “The cannon is not fit to be used.”
She meant to speak with Jerry about the matter before she went to bed, but for some reason it slipped her mind.
Bob and Jerry slept but little that night. The younger boy tumbled and tossed and wished daylight was at hand, so that his great plan might reach the climax. In imagination he fired the old cannon a hundred times, and each time the report was something grand, and made Grandfather Ridd clap his hands with pleasure.
“It will wake all of Roseville up,” he said to himself, “and perhaps they will hear it clear down to Newark.”
“Say, Bob, what’s the matter with you?” demanded Sam, who was sleeping in the same room. “Why can’t you be still and go to sleep?”
“I’m hot,” replied Bob.
And he told the truth, for he was nearly burning up with importance.
At last the old clock in the kitchen struck five. Sam jumped up at once. For a wonder he did not find it necessary to awake either Bob or Jerry.
“Hello! both awake!” he cried. “Oh, I forget, to-day is the Fourth of July.”
And he dressed and went below without another word.
Bob and Jerry were soon into their clothes, and then they followed Sam to the kitchen, where the big brother was getting his pails for the morning milking.
The cows were deep in the pasture back of the barn, and now, after telling Jerry to hunt up all the eggs and Bob to clean up the stable, went off to drive them to the favorite milking spot under a big tree.
No sooner was he gone than Bob w…d to Jerry and the pair sprinted to the barn as light as they could go.
“We don’t want to lose any time,” cried Bob. “I just heard mother and grandpop getting ready to come down.”
“Let’s drag the cannon across the road and up behind the rocks right in front of the house,” said Jerry. “Then they won’t see her until she goes off.”
It was hard work to budge the old piece, but it was done, and with part of an ancient horse harness the two boys dragged it up to the spot Jerry mentioned.
Then Bob ran back for the powder and also a fuse Jerry had made, and with their hearts thumping wildly the two proceeded to load up.
“I don’t know how much powder to go in exactly,” said Jerry. “But I guess half wouldn’t be too much.”
“Oh, put in more than that,” said Bob. “We want to wake things up all around.”
So about three-quarters of the powder was put into the cannon, which was then filled nearly to the muzzle with paper, soda and small stones.
Then the fuse was placed in position and Jerry announced that the piece was ready for firing.
“All right,” whispered Bob. “here goes!”
He struck a match on the rock beside him. It flared up into a tiny flame which was applied to the fuse, and instantly there was a sizz.
“Get down behind the rocks!” shouted Jerry. “It’s best to be out of sight.”
For an instant Bob hesitated. Then as the fuse flashed up he dropped beside his brother.
It was a deafening report. To Bob it seemed as though the very end of the world had come. There was a strange whistling sound in the air above him, and presently a small bit of iron dropped beside him.
What did it mean? Both boys jumped to their feet, and with faces as white as sheets gazed about them.
The old cannon was gone; the charge had burst it into a thousand pieces. Over in the ditch, thirty feet away, lay the one wheel; and the other had gone no one could tell where.
“Busted!” gasped Bob. “Are you hurt, Jerry?”
“No, but I feel kind of sick in the stomach,” replied Jerry faintly.
From around the back of the house rushed Mrs., followed slowly by Grandfather Ridd, both trembling with agitation.
“Boys, what does this mean?” cried the woman. “Are either of you hurt?”
“No, but the cannon is,” said Bob.
“Did you fire it off?”
“Yes and it busted all to cinders. Goodness gracious, look at that!”
Bob had just glanced at the home, and now he pointed with his finger. Every pane of glass in the front rooms was broken, and there was a big, jagged hole in one corner of the sloping roof.
“Oh, mother; I didn’t mean to do any damage like that!”
“Thank God you are neither of you killed!” ejaculated Mrs. Fowler.
In a moment more Sam came running up and the situation was explained to him. He was in for giving both of his brothers a thrashing, but Mrs. Fowler said they were sorry enough already, to say nothing of the scare they had received.
It was fully half an hour before the family quieted down, and then all hands went about the house to see what amount of damage had been done. It was found that, beside of the broken glass, nothing was injured downstairs.
“And I will help pay for that,” said Bob.
“And so will I,” added Jerry.
Then the party went up late the sloping garret. The hole in the roof was close up to the … Sam dislodged it slowly, pulling at the shingle and that.
“Hullo, what’s this?” he exclaimed, suddenly. And he held up a packet of letters, tied with a shoestring.
Mrs. Fowler took the letters to the light and examined them.
“They are your grandfather’s missing papers!” she cried. “What a most fortunate find!”
“My papers!” exclaimed Grandfather Ridd. “Yes, yes, I remember placing them there so long ago!”
For a while the damage done by the explosion was forgotten. Everybody was overjoyed at the luck that had been brought to light.
“I am so glad that we fired the cannon and that the old thing busted,” said Bob. “But I don’t want to try it over again, not for all the pensions in the world!”
By the aid of the letters Mrs. Fowler was able to enter into correspondence with several who had known Grandfather Ridd during his service in the army, and as a consequence it was not long before the old man received the good round sum that was due him.
And so it was that the explosion turned out a lucky affair.
–Newark Sunday Call, 3 July 1892